Back to the Future

by John Quiggin on December 23, 2005

Offering the converse of a point made here not long ago, the Economist observes that

France quarrels with America not because the pair are so different but because they are so alike

What struck me most about the article was a reference to the appeal in France of US culture, epitomised by “Harry’s American Sandwich Shop”.

Thinking about this, it struck me that this kind of reference to American culture always, for me, brings the the 1950s to mind – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, diners, Corvettes, the Mickey Mouse Club (OK, mainly Annette Funicello). And the same is true for France. I think of Sartre and existentialism, Bonjour Tristesse, Truffaut and so on.

By contrast, the 1950s in Australia are pretty much a blank for me – there was plenty happening before and after, but nothing then that made an impact. Culture at that time, and for most of the 60s, was something that came from overseas (this was true of both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture). Is all this something generational, a personal idiosyncrasy on my part, or do particular cultures have defining decades?

{ 20 comments }

1

y81 12.23.05 at 10:22 pm

I certainly can’t answer the question you pose, but, as a minor analytic point, it’s interesting to note that the American cultural items you note (diners, Elvis Presley etc.) all pertain to popular culture, whereas the French items (Sartre, Bonjour Tristesse) pertain to high culture.

2

Syd Webb 12.23.05 at 11:49 pm

JQ: By contrast, the 1950s in Australia are pretty much a blank for me – there was plenty happening before and after, but nothing then that made an impact

As always, I’d blame Menzies.

3

Andrew Brown 12.24.05 at 3:53 am

I think the America that attracted Europe was the America of the Fifties — for fairly obvious reasons, that is when the imbalance in prestige was greatest between Europe, recovering under guard from yet another suicide attempt, and an unfettered America beloved around the world.

What is striking, though, is the degree to which this is the America which attracts Americans, too. Perhaps it is just the boomers’ nostalgia for their childhoods but there may be something else involved.

4

David Weman 12.24.05 at 4:16 am

I vote for personal ideosyncrasy.

5

David Weman 12.24.05 at 4:17 am

I mean idiosyncrasy.

6

bad Jim 12.24.05 at 4:20 am

My personal recollection of the ’50’s runs to things like Mighty Mouse and Crusader Rabbit and many things Disney.

I tend now to think of it as the time that modernism ran into a wall and stopped, stunned. Too many people had died, and the remnants of the original vitality of the twentieth century withered in the cold war.

7

abb1 12.24.05 at 5:28 am

When I think ‘nostalgic stuff of the 50s’ the first thing that pops up in my head is Le Notti di Cabiria with Some Like It Hot only remote second. Nothing French, sorry.

8

Neel Krishnaswami 12.24.05 at 9:03 am

In my private history of the imagination, both France and America have multiple epochs for me.

Prerevolutionary France is an epoch, created for me entirely by Dumas’s Musketeers.

For both France and America, the revolutionary period looms large — men in powdered wigs, fine philosophy, political progress, and murderous violence sit cheek-by-jowl. Oddly enough, this period was drawn in my mind by Britons; Adam Smith (Moral Sentiments), Tom Paine, and Burke are key.
Dumas looms large as well, both in fiction and in actuality.

The “revolutionary epoch” for the France in my mind stretches from the actual revolution all the way through 1848. The Communist Manifesto marks the end of that epoch for me, and the start of the industrial age. France does not situate the industrial age of my imagination, though; Britain (Dickens), Germany (Max Stirner), and America (the great robber barons like Carnegie and Vanderbilt) are where the dark satanic mills of my dreams are built.

In America, we have the Wild West, whose imagery was created for me largely by Sergio Leone. Philosophically, it’s the afterbirth of the American Civil War, which is the end of America’s revolutionary period — the argument about the equality of all men is settled with the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

France has the fin-de-siecle period. It was made for me by Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Victor Hugo (yes, Hugo; the history of my imagination is not entirely faithful to real history).

America has the jazz age and the hard boiled detective, which was created for me by Dashiel Hammet and the French filmmakers who invented film noir.

Interwar France is overshadowed by Weimar Germany, but for fifties France, I share much with John Quiggin, though for me there is more Camus than Sartre.

Fifties America has no special hold in my dreams. The civil rights movement first caught fire then, of course, but in my dreams it belongs to the sixties thing — and the ‘1960s’ are a distinct epoch, which lacks specific place except for the West, generically. Depending on my mood the sixties end either with the moon landing or with the riots of sixty-eight.

As an epoch, my dream America also has the dot-com years, when the Singularity seemed just around the corner, and friendly, too.

9

JR 12.24.05 at 12:21 pm

My teen-aged son went to Georgetown (D.C.) to met a girl from NY that he knows. Restaurants of all prices and ethnicities on all sides. Where did they go to eat? Johnny Rocket’s – a god-awful hamburger chain with a 50’s theme. The power of that decade seems indestructible.

10

Bill McNeill 12.24.05 at 2:18 pm

For me, cultural eras that I didn’t actually live through are defined primarily by musical styles. The 30s was swing, the 60s was rock, the 70s was the Age of Zeppelin, etc. The 50s was the early days of rock and roll. All other associations (tailfins, Mickey Mouse) are ancillary.

By this reckoning, France barely registers for me. It blips into existence for awhile during the 1930s and 40s because I’m a big Django Reinhardt fan, but then quietly slips away.

11

Peter 12.24.05 at 2:57 pm

The Fifties are a mythical place in the hearts of most people in the US. Pre Vietnam, Pre Kennedy, Pre Civil rights. I usually prescribe reading the book The Way We Never Were for people who come down with nostalgitis.

12

hirvi 12.24.05 at 4:24 pm

“France quarrels with America not because the pair are so different but because they are so alike”

That’s a good one! – one almost wonders if they wanted to gall anyone, and if so, who the most: the French or the Americans?

I quit my ‘Economist’ subscription a long time ago.

13

bob mcmanus 12.24.05 at 5:32 pm

“Bonjour Tristesse” ?

Jean Seberg Read the whole thing. She, besides a major crush object of my youth, is also a symbol or avatar (?) of post-war America for me.

No the relationship between 50/60s USA/France was real and complicated. I don’t remember many expatriates of self-exiles(jazz musicians) moving to London or Melbourne.

14

Bill McNeill 12.24.05 at 7:09 pm

Response to hirvi #12…Obviously part of the fun of making a statement like that is the opportunity to piss off everyone; nevertheless, I thought the linked article identified some valid parallels between American and French political culture–specifically in the way that both nations have their modern origins in 18th century Enlightenment revolutions that may have left both with a weakness for a particular brand of exceptionalism. What about the article struck you as specious?

15

Omri 12.25.05 at 7:54 pm

In the 1950s America was hosting the cultural equivalent of an olympiad because of all the expats and refugees staying here, so it is unsurprising that for other countries the 50’s were a blanker slate.

16

dave heasman 12.25.05 at 8:11 pm

Bob McManus : –
“I don’t remember many expatriates of self-exiles(jazz musicians) moving to London or Melbourne”

In the case of London this was not a case of there being no public, but the result of a recalcitrant and self-destructive Musicians’ Union. And a racist establishment fighting an early war on some drugs.
No American musicians came to London, but a shitload of South Africans did.
I think there were a lot of expat artists in England in the 50s, too. Mostly from Australia and Africa, plus people like Koestler and Canetti who’d come before the war & stayed.
And some refugees from McCarthy, too.

17

hirvi 12.26.05 at 12:54 am

Bill:

“What about the article struck you as specious?”

It’s superficial, imho. Unless the US is European, and I missed something.

18

dave 12.26.05 at 9:17 am

david weman:

I think everyone should be able to spell idiosync3rasy any way they damn well please.

My way has a silent 3.

19

Scott Martens 12.26.05 at 2:21 pm

Funny, I had some similar thoughts having just spent Christmas at Euro Disneyland. The place is less a Disney theme park – it’s a pale reflection of the Anaheim park – so much as a US culture themed park. Plastic replicas of New York complete with Rockefeller Plaza, an imagined Old West, an imagined Holywood, a romanticised Mafia, country music, barbecued steaks, hot dogs (at €4.70 a piece!?!), no American beer, thank god!

The line dancing was a bit… disconcerting. French people should not line dance. I will fully back any legislation in support of that principle.

Still, it was very odd to see this very strange reflection of America. Not quite the “cultural Chernobyl” it’s purported to be, but just faintly creepy. I ought to go visit the Paris-themed casino in Vegas for a real comparison though.

20

Cal 12.27.05 at 10:16 pm

It may or may not be significant that Australia never made it into mainstream American (or European) film until the early 60s. Maybe we just don’t have any visual images of the country or its culture until that point.

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